The Chiara String Quartet and pianist Simone Dinnerstein joined forces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Grace Rainey Auditorium last night to present a New York premiere and a beloved standard. The first, Jefferson Friedman’s The Heart Wakes Into (2014), is a piano quintet in six brief movements of timbral exploration and sporadic feverishness, sharply modernistic but evocative and accessible.
The very short first movement announces a colorful creative spirit, with bursts of tone clusters followed by deliberative descending chords. In the second, stichomythic flares of repeating and adjacent notes swell into agitated clusters, climbing up and down the scale and subsuming the individual instruments’ voices into an ebbing and flowing wash of sound.
After an unresolved ending, that non-narrative tone poem gives way to the third movement’s tinkly atmospherics, with expressive splashes of color and Copland-esque chord modalities in the strings, as the piano fidgets in its top register. The interplay between piano and strings grows intense in the fourth movement, as agitated rumbles of thunder descend the scales like curtains of rain amid tricky rhythms before abruptly ending.
More serene atmospherics return for the fifth movement, with soft minimalist-romantic piano balladry that somehow called both Brahms and Tori Amos to my mind. Crowded harmonies and speedier motion defined a more decisive development section, which faded suddenly, with no recapitulation.
The extremely sparse and ethereal sixth movement was strangely quiet and slow for a finale, with Dinnerstein reaching over the keyboard to pluck the piano stings and cellist Gregory Beaver sustaining high, thin tones as quiet sine-like notes emanated from somewhere outside the string section. (Pre-recorded? Triggered? Drawn from the piano’s guts somehow?) It was in any case a surprising close to an interesting, appealing work.
After a short break the ensemble returned for the Brahms Quintet in F minor, Op. 34. Though still a relatively youthful work, it’s marked by a mature creative style that drew the best out of these musicians and, best of all, made me feel I was hearing it anew. They phrased beautifully the first movement’s conversation, triplets bubbling under straight rhythms like subterranean currents, lightning-quick piano passages, and romantic but – as usual with Brahms – deep, surprising melodies. “Breathing” like a single creature, the five musicians executed the movement’s rhythmic complexity with all the requisite skill.
Dinnerstein handled the rubatos of the Andante second movement with calm expressivity; in Brahms there’s little room and even less need for the experiments in expansiveness she’s known for with Bach. The pianist led the simple theme through its subtle expansions with appropriate modesty. The wonderful Scherzo drew yeoman work from the strings, with Jonah Sirota’s viola phrasings especially notable. In the trio section I heard a rare bit of muddiness, but then, during the recapitulation, the ensemble was so energetically in time and rich in timbre that it sounded like a well-honed chamber orchestra.
The eerily cloudy start to the Finale presaged a symphony in miniature, the cello leading, then the piano, then a full-on conversation through a widely varied emotional terrain finally touching down with a volcanic “Presto.” Like the Quintet as a whole, this movement gives equal importance to the piano and the strings, and in the harmonious ensemble work by these five musicians the fruits of their longtime collaboration were patently evident, as were the benefits of the Chiara’s impressive practice of playing from memory.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00IN3POJI][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0679745823][amazon template=iframe image&asin= B00GXCJOYM][amazon template=iframe image&asin= B00PH83UTS]